Fire as a fundamental ecological process

Fire as a fundamental ecological process: Research advances and frontiers” by McLauchlan et al. is the newest essay review to be published in Journal of Ecology.

In this blog post, authors S. Yoshi Maezumi, Jessica R. Miesel, Philip E. Higuera and Leda Kobziar summarise the recent advances and frontiers in fire ecology research, within the context of increasing global wildfire activity.

The 2019-2020 global wildfire season was the largest, longest, and most destructive on record. Although human communities have relied on and used fire for millennia, we now experience fire mainly as natural disaster, with fire suppression the predominant response. Current wildfires are seen as an escalating societal challenge because fires occur more frequently and have more destructive outcomes, especially in the wildland-urban interface. California and the Mediterranean are prime examples of more and more people living in fire-susceptible landscapes, setting up a collision between the two. It also seems that fires are now happening in places they never did before, like Scandinavia and the Amazonian rainforest. If fires can now occur in new places there could be serious implications for key ecological processes, including biodiversity and the global carbon cycle. In the aftermath of the largest and most costly fire season on record in southeastern Australia, the biological losses of plants, animals, soils, and the ecological processes that support human communities are unimaginably large.

Slash and Burn agricultural fire in St. Thomas, Jamaica. Photo: Yoshi Maezumi.

Despite the tendency to perceive fire primarily as a detrimental force, the ecological perspective of fire has shifted dramatically over the past several decades, from a viewpoint of fire as an undesirable destructive force to one of fire as an integral process influencing most terrestrial ecosystems on Earth. Thus, suppressing or excluding fire from ecosystems is not only ecologically detrimental, but can also contribute to higher risk of catastrophic fire in the future. Drawing from the knowledge of indigenous cultures in fire-prone regions, ecologists have grown to embrace fire’s natural role through an expansive and deepening understanding of fire ecology. This presents a paradox for the current suppression-focused fire management paradigm. As climate change continues to push fire outside the historical range of variability in many regions, and as wildfires increase in non-fire adapted ecosystems from the Arctic to Australia, it is increasingly important for human communities to develop a relationship with fire that helps avoid or minimise catastrophic social and economic impacts.

Fire activity on Earth: (A) lightning-ignited wildfire in the boreal forest, Alaska, USA. Photo: Philip Higuera (B) prescribed fire in tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills of Kanas, USA. Photo: Kendra McLauchlan (C) prescribed fire in temperate oak savanna in Minnesota, USA. Photo: Susan Barrott (D) post-fire landscape in the Mediterranean biome of Catalonia, Spain. Photo: Enric Batllori (E) prescribed fire in tropical forest in Brazil. Photo: Paulo Brando (F) post-fire landscape in coniferous forest in Montana, USA. Photo: Kendra McLauchlan (G) prescribed fire in mesic pine savanna in Florida, USA. Photo: Raelene Crandall (H) lightning-ignited wildfire in the tundra, Alaska, USA. Photo: Philip Higuera.

The Future of Fire Consortium (FFC), composed of ecologists from around the globe with expertise ranging from paleoecology to atmospheric science, gathered to assess how fire ecology could inform answers to these pressing concerns. In our recent review, the FFC identified critical research frontiers in six areas of fire ecology: (1) expanding concepts of fire regimes, (2) understanding drivers of changing fire regimes, (3, 4) examining fire effects on aboveground and belowground ecology, (5) incorporating fuels ecology in determining fire behavior, and (6) improving representation of fire processes in a variety of modeling contexts. Within these six critical areas, the FFC identified three emergent themes for future fire ecology research including: (1) the need to study fire across temporal and spatial scales, (2) the need to assess the mechanisms underlying a variety of feedbacks in the fire system, and (3) the need to improve representation of fire in a range of modeling contexts.

Accidental Fire tropical forests in Brazil. Photo: Yoshi Maezumi.

Our paper offers guidance to continue the important mission of understanding both the fundamental role of fire in ecological systems and the human role in shaping fire activity. As fire regimes and our relationships with fire continue to change, prioritising these research areas and emergent themes will facilitate understanding of the ecological causes and consequences of future fires and fire management. It is increasingly urgent for us to develop the scientific foundation for living with fire.

S. Yoshi Maezumi University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Jessica R. Miesel Michigan State University, USA
Philip E. Higuera University of Montana, USA
Leda Kobziar University of Idaho, USA

Read this open access essay review online: Fire as a fundamental ecological process: Research advances and frontiers

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